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Mississippi high court halts woman's execution, orders a new trial

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Until Monday, Michelle Byrom was set to become the first woman executed by Mississippi in 70 years -- for a murder her son reportedly confessed to committing.

The Mississippi Supreme Court halted Byrom's execution, threw out her murder conviction and ordered a new trial in one of the nation's most closely watched capital-punishment cases.

In the decision handed down Monday, the court called its own move "extraordinary and extremely rare," at least compared to similar death-penalty appeals, few of which result in new trials.

But the particulars of Byrom's case have also been peculiar, according to observers who have followed it.

Byrom, 56, had been convicted of masterminding the 1999 murder of her husband, Edward Byrom Sr., and got the death penalty despite confessions by her son, Edward Jr., that pointed to a possible crime of passion.

"As I sat on my bed, tears of rage flowing, remembering my childhood my anger kept building and building, and I went to my car, got the 9mm, and walked to his room, peeked in, and he was asleep," read one letter by Edward Byrom Jr., quoted in the Jackson Free Press. "I walked about 2 steps in the door, and screamed, and shut my eyes, when I heard him move, I started firing."

But jurors never heard of those confessions, according to local media. Instead, officials argued that one of Edward Byrom Jr.'s friends, Joey Gillis, was the triggerman as part of a murder-for-hire plot orchestrated by Michelle Byrom.

Gillis and Edward Byrom Jr. were convicted of lesser crimes and are now free, while Michelle Byrom got the death penalty. At one point, her execution had been scheduled for last week.

The prosecution has received national criticism, with legal analyst Andrew Cohen writing in the Atlantic that the case contained an "unholy trinity" of constitutional problems: "Her lawyers acted incompetently at trial, making one mistake after another. Exculpatory evidence that likely would have changed the outcome of her trial was hidden from her by the trial judge, and perhaps by prosecutors as well. Dealing with codefendants, prosecutors played a form of musical chairs with the facts and with the charges."

One Mississippi Supreme Court justice had previously written of Byrom's defense against the death penalty: "I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case. I cannot."

In the en banc order handed down Monday, the state's highest court did not detail the specifics about why it threw out the conviction, saying simply that the court had reviewed the materials surrounding the case and that Byrom's appeal was "well taken and should be granted." 

After the ruling, Byrom's lawyers said in a statement that they were "grateful" for the decision and for the opportunity to give Byrom another shot in court.

"Michelle suffered extreme sexual and physical abuse from an early age and throughout her marriage," the statement said. "We are pleased that Ms. Byrom will now have the opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence that she is innocent of murder-for-hire.”

The case was ordered back to Tishomingo County to be assigned to a different trial judge.

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